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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can fiction prose get as tactile and ebullient as this?
Do you know that word "barbecue" originates from Haitian "barbacado" that refers to a rack-frame system leaving off the ground a bed? Do you know that tomatoes, if imminently picked and allowed to ripe during transport, will turn plasticky and insipid? Do you know that the thickness requirement in preserving the juice in barbecued meat is an inch to 3 inches? Have you...
Published on June 19 2003 by Matthew M. Yau

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars the debt to nabokov
This book impressed me first and formeost as the work of a Nabokov wannabe. The "unreliable narrator" ploy, the protagonist who is, at least in his own eyes, too good for this world, the slow unveiling of horror within a texture of polite erudition and so on all felt deeply familiar from the moment i picked up the book and it didn't take long to figure out...
Published on Feb. 27 2000 by Zachary Smith


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars the debt to nabokov, Feb. 27 2000
By 
Zachary Smith "mad scientist" (San Francisco, CA United States) - See all my reviews
This book impressed me first and formeost as the work of a Nabokov wannabe. The "unreliable narrator" ploy, the protagonist who is, at least in his own eyes, too good for this world, the slow unveiling of horror within a texture of polite erudition and so on all felt deeply familiar from the moment i picked up the book and it didn't take long to figure out where I'd run across them before. That said, my advice to Mr. Lanchester is, "Nice try John, keep workin' on it but... keep your day job."
I remember meeting a man called Alexis once on the island of Hydra. He was handsome, charming, witty and international. He had lived all over the world and had, to quote Roy Batty, "seen things you people wouldn't believe." He was instantly likeable and almost everyone in the gentle crowd of artists, rock stars, hippies and vacationing literati swirling around him liked him immensely in spite of the fact that, once you got to know him a bit, you realized that he was a cold-blooded, mercenary killer who specialized in working for governments engaged in the dirtiest of wars - Angola, Brazil, Chile and so on. Reading "Lolita" is a little like spending an afternoon with Alexis. The texture of the experience is so rich and luxurious, the pacing and plotting so deft that you are willing to forgive your companion almost anything just as long as you can continue to bask in the glow of the encounter. By contrast, reading "The Debt to Pleasure" is a bit like a first date with someone who turns out to be exasperating, self-absorbed and, in the end, not particularly interesting. By the end of the first chapter "A Winter Menu" there was, I'll admit, a bit of intrigue left. By the middle of the third chapter, around page 80 of this 250 page book, the lanscape was utterly clear with respect to everything but the minutest details and I found myself slogging through reams of tortured and not particularly engaging prose just to see how it would end - in fact, just to end it.
It is not an experience I would care to repeat. Note to self, " No More Dinners with Mr. Winot."
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can fiction prose get as tactile and ebullient as this?, June 19 2003
By 
Matthew M. Yau "Voracious reader" (San Francisco, CA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Do you know that word "barbecue" originates from Haitian "barbacado" that refers to a rack-frame system leaving off the ground a bed? Do you know that tomatoes, if imminently picked and allowed to ripe during transport, will turn plasticky and insipid? Do you know that the thickness requirement in preserving the juice in barbecued meat is an inch to 3 inches? Have you ever wondered why starch (such as rice) and fruits, and not a glass of iced water, serve to subdue the spiciness of curry?
John Lanchester's The Debt of Pleasure not only deftly answers all the above questions but also, in impeccable and painfully beguiling prose, embraces his readers into the world of Tarquin Winot. Strictly speaking, the book, which is nothing more than a scrumptious culinary reflection in thoughtful menus arranged by the seasons, cannot be deemed as a work of fiction if Winot is a real chef. From his menus, which embody different cultures, capture a man's psychology and thus his impulse to order, and witness the come-and-go of dining trends; Winot related the story of his life to the preparations of food.
The writing is as insatiating and titillating as the menus. Winot retreated to southern France and reminisced, papered his thoughts on the subject of food that evoked his childhood, his parents, his brother Barthomelow the artist, the beloved maidservant Mary-Theresa, and the home cook Mitthaug. Aroma of a particular dish could graciously tug his memory and coalesce the disparate locations of Winot's upbringing. Woven into his painfully and haughtily opinionated meditations on food was disheartening anecdotes of his family. His brother struggled as an artist who, like other artists in history, never felt adequately attended to for his work and died a tragic death of fungus poisoning. His parents, in a multiplying series of mishaps that primarily involved leaving all the kitchen gas taps on and a full-scale leak from the gas boiler, died in an explosion triggered by turning on a light switch.
The lighter side of the book tells of Winot's aspiration to becoming a chef. He attributed such biographical significance to a chance visit to his brother's boarding school in England. The food served was a nightmarish demonstration of culinary banality and a stark confirmation of Captain Ford's quote in 1846 "The salad is the glory of every French dinner and the disgrace of most in England." A more humorous side would be Winot's rash denunciation of sweet-and-sour dishes (lupsup, meaning garbage) that dominated the English dining. As a native of Hong Kong, the notion truly hit home as any violent combination such as the sweet-and-sour taste is immediately deemed as inauthentic.
Read it as a novel "masquerading" as a cookbook, as a memoir, as food critics, as secretive cooking knacks, as word of caution (such as the roasting of apple seeds will release toxins), as an indispensable companion to your conventional cookbook, an eccentric philosophical soliloquy of the culinary art. I vouch that anyone who reads this book will find the recipes zestfully flirting with the tastebuds and liberating the senses. Exquisitely written. 4.2 stars.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hannibal Lecter writes a cook book, Sept. 5 2001
This book both enthralled me, and gave me the chills. It was much like reading "The Silence of the Lambs" from the point of view of Hannibal. You know, "I HAD to kill the census worker, his liver just went SO WELL with fava beans and chianti."
Reading the other customer reviews, I both loved and hated the book. I could agree with points on both sides. I'm not sure whether this means that it is a truly gifted book, or that I'm really twisted....
I'm sure that I would have liked it much more if I had had a knowledge of French or French cuisine. Some of the names of dishes he mentioned in passing would probably have added to the wit of the book if I had known what they were. I can understand what a pate is, but some of the more convoluted dish names had me saying "What the heck is that?"
Well worth the time and effort to read if you can get through the dense and convoluted prose.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Monster Within, Nov. 27 2001
By 
A. Ross (Washington, DC) - See all my reviews
One's reaction to this book will, in large part, be predicated on how one reacts to cleverness and dark humor. For, while written with indisputable skill, Lanchester's novel is more than anything an exercise in droll, urbane, (dare I say smug) cleverness-at it's best (or worst, according to one's taste). Within the deliciously witty, snide, nasty, condescending, and rambling meditations of one Tarquin Winot lie dark kernels of truth regarding his true nature and past. Tarquin is both genius and gourmand, so his writings are loosely arranged around a seasonal menu, with tangential discourses on the various ingredients and much more. While his descriptions of food are certainly evocative, there's much more going on than a simple foodie travelogue. It's obvious quite early on that he's a pampered egomaniac, and indeed, after a while, his self-absorbed ramblings begin to grow wearisome. However, mingled with these are broad clues as to true megalomania and psychopathy. All of this emerges as he recounts an interview he grants his brother's biographer.
That some reviewers found the book disturbing or unsettling seems rather odd. Well-cultured and well-spoken psychopaths are hardly a new phenomenon in either literature or real life, and that's essentially what Tarquin is. It's possible that this disquiet comes from the reader becoming enamored of Tarquin and then finding out his true nature at the very end, but this seems exceedingly unlikely. For all Lanchester's skill, Tarquin's "secret" is fairly evident quite early on, via a number of extremely broad hints, so that readers who are paying any kind of attention will quickly realize that all is not as it might seem. In the end, it's a fairly clever and certainly well-written character study, with a dark secret that is unearthed rather too soon for the book to be entirely satisfactory. Still, it is clear Lanchester is a writer worth watching.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Nearly Nabokov, Nov. 7 2001
By 
Dennis Grace (Austin, TX United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
If you like dark comedies and find culinary arts even the least bit interesting, read this marvelous first novel from John Lanchester.
I truly wish I could tell you that John Lanchester's _The Debt to Pleasure_ is a 5 star wonder, but I just can't. Lanchester's protagonist and narrator, Tarquin Winot, certainly pans the breadth of the author's vocabulary, erudition, and culinary knowledge, and _Debt_ is a spectacular premier effort.
Reading through the first few chapters, I noticed a certain similarity to Nabokov's _Pale Fire_. Unfortunately, the novel ultimately fails to deliver on this early promise. Like _Pale Fire_, the story that the narrator tells and the story the he intends to tell are clearly at odds with one another, and though Lanchester manages to juggle this dichotomy successfully throughout much of the novel, he lets the shoe fall a bit early. Well before the end, the trail is too clearly marked out for us. The trip is pleasant, but the plot is already resolved except for the details of how who did what to whom. Quite unlike Nabokov's masterwork of insinuative commentary, Tarquin ends the novel by tying up the entire plot in a package that is at once too neat and too heavy.
Overall, Lanchester succeeds when Tarquin is strong and fails when Tarquin is foolish. To be more precise, Lanchester fails when he loses control of Tarquin's secrecy and subtlety (as when he describes his clownish attire or when he rationalizes his actions in his explication to the biographer near the end of the novel) and succeeds when Tarquin is most thoroughly and ludicrously in control (when he elucidates his belief that only lesser artists actually create anything or when he passes culinary judgment upon damn near anything at all). When a chuckling Tarquin says to the biographer, "Anyone would think you were writing my brother's biography," I want him to know (as we know) the true subject of the biography. That would help to explain the cross country search and the final act of the novel, but Tarquin/Lanchester does not make this clear, leaving Tarquin looking perhaps just a little bit more foolish and quirky, just a little bit less frightening.
Yes, the novel is funny. Yes, it is a marvelous read. Yes, I await Lanchester's next work.
But, no, it's not quite a masterpiece.
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5.0 out of 5 stars stylish debut, June 17 2001
By 
Orrin C. Judd "brothersjudddotcom" (Hanover, NH USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This debut novel by the British book reviewer and food critic, John Lanchester, owes a roughly equal debt to Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin's The Physiology of Taste, perhaps the most revered book on cooking ever written, and to Vladimir Nabokov's classics Lolita and Pale Fire, with a dash of Remains of the Day thrown in. The book starts out as mere "culinary reflections" by a brilliant, arrogant, pedantic, almost grotesquely loquacious Englishman named Tarquin Winot :
Over the years, many people have pleaded with me to commit to paper my thoughts on the subject of food. Indeed the words 'Why don't you write a book about it?,' uttered in an admittedly wide variety of tones and inflections, have come to possess something of the quality of a mantra--one tending to be provoked by a disquisition of mine on, for instance, the composition of an authoritative cassoulet, or Victorian techniques for baking hedgehogs in clay.
These reflections, structured around specific menus, and presented over the course of a travelogue, are fascinating, as they veer off onto obscure tangents, and slyly funny, as Winot completely dominates the book with his distinctive voice and maddeningly egotistical monologues. But the reader quickly comes to distrust him and eventually to suspect his motives. He is after all traveling in disguise, seems to be following a young couple, and reveals the unfortunate ends met by his brother, a famous artist, and several others over the course of his life. These facts, combined with the elitist morality he espouses, raise some uncomfortable questions about what exactly Mr. Winot is up to here.
Unlike Pale Fire or Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, in the end there's not much doubt left about the central events of the novel. Mr. Lanchester is less interested in preserving the mystery than in the hugely entertaining character he's created. Tarquin Winot, even if he is a sociopath, is a very amusing one. And Mr Lanchester has rare common sense enough to keep the book brief, ending the "gastro-historico-psycho-autobiographico-anthropico-philosophic lucubrations" before Winot's act grows tiresome.
If you always knew the Frugal Gourmet had something to hide. If Martha Stewart's icy WASP demeanor has always seemed like a front to you. Read The Debt to Pleasure and in its deliciously insidious pages have your worst fears confirmed, about the hideous evil that lurks behind these facades of condescending homemaking competence.
GRADE : A-
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2.0 out of 5 stars very well-written narcissistic tedium, April 25 2001
By 
Tarquin Winot fancies himself a connoisseur, an arbiter of taste, a genius, and possibly, God. Unfortunately, this doesn't make him a very interesting narrator, since egomania becomes tiresome pretty quickly. His only redeeming trait, a nasty, stinging wit, surfaces too infrequently to save him from being a well-fed bore.
This is not a book about sensory pleasures, food or otherwise. This is a book in which the protagonist's pervasive narcissism prevents him from perceiving anything in his life--food, landscapes, people, you name it--in any capacity other than props for his overblown self-involvement. Tarquin Winot's world really only contains Tarquin Winot: Tarquin Winot's food, Tarquin Winot's house, Tarquin Winot's family. So it comes as no surprise when finally, breathlessly, he admits to dispatching his shadowy, barely animate acquaintances. ("Yeah, yeah, so you pushed your nanny in front of a train. Zzzzzz.")
However, I'm biased. I have an institutionalized narcissistic relative who phones only to recite her myriad superlative qualities--she's the BEST mother, the SMARTEST Mensa member, the MOST GIFTED writer/artist/dancer,and of course, the BEST mental patient ever. Consequently, I would've preferred reading about a protagonist with a less monotonous psychological handicap. --But that's just me.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fiendishly clever and totally involving., Nov. 24 2000
By 
A critic quoted on the book jacket claims that The Debt to Pleasure "has no flaws." That may or may not be true, but the critic's obvious enthusiasm for the book certainly matches my own! It is devilishly entertaining.
Tarquin Winot, the speaker, is an artist, a dedicated gourmet, a brilliant and thoughtful philosopher, and an intolerant and arrogant supersnob who shares his lofty opinions with the reader as he travels from Portsmouth to southern France. In sometimes long-winded sentences, Winot comments on effete subjects, such as the erotics of dislike, the aesthetics of absence, and his disinterest in the idea of interest, while simultaneously creating deliciously sensuous descriptions of the perfect bouillabaise, lamb with apricots, or pike in beurre blanc.
Winot is so waspishly nasty, so full of condescension, that I almost abandoned the book as too rarefied to care about. Then the author "hooked" me with a few details that made me think that Winot might not be all he seemed to be--that he might be far more interesting than anything I had previously suspected. This carefully crafted and (ultimately) coherent novel of intrigue is a delight to read--the sort of book to savor in even the smallest of doses.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Dinner with a side of homocide, Aug. 21 2000
Tarquin, the protagonist of this philosophical/culinary mystery, presents himself as an intellectually superior epicure with a passion for fine food. He structures his treatise in seasonal form, with a series of menus branching out into meanderings about food, travel, and family life. Through his verbose ramblings, Tarquin reveals himself as a much more than he suggests at first. In short, he has murdered his nanny, his parents, his brother, his neighbor, and an acquaintance and her husband.
I had to marvel at Lanchester's skill in setting up this story. Like the fish stew that Tarquin describes so lovingly, the novel has layers upon layers of density. Tarquin, the sociopath, knows exactly what he is doing, as he subtly drops hint after hint about the killings. He draws attention to his own cleverness in destroying life, since, to paraphrase his own words, destruction is a higher art than creation.
This novel demands attention, through its complicated sentences and erudite phrasing, as well as its complex ideas and undercurrents. In the end, though, Lanchester, much like his main character Tarquin, leaves the reader both awed and extremely uneasy.
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5.0 out of 5 stars a must for the dark, sardonic, epicurean, June 1 2000
I must say that I was very pleased with myself after finishing this novel, because reading it was actually work, albeit in a satisfying way. Potential readers should be advised to keep a dictionary handy.
This book requires effort because it is too well written to rush through, and to fully comprehend and, more importantly, savor the passages one needs to devote the requisite time to absorb them. It is written in that typically dry, droll, understated British fashion that makes you laugh on the inside.
Initially, although I appreciated the work, I felt I needed a break because, while clever, I wanted to read something that moved faster even if less cerebral. However, about a third through the book suddenly begins to surprise you by presenting new and unexpected twists which keep you throughly engaged.
This book is a must for the dark, sardonic, epicurean whose teeth began to hurt, and needed something "wicked" after reading Peter Mayle and Frances Mayes.
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